Pope Francis' approach at reform garners mixed reviews

Pope Francis delivers his blessing as he is driven away on his pope-mobile at the end of his weekly general audience, in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)
Pope Francis delivers his blessing as he is driven away on his pope-mobile at the end of his weekly general audience, in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)
Posted: October 07, 2013

Six months into his no-frills papacy, Pope Francis is raising hopes and hackles, delighting liberals and dismaying at least some conservatives with his open-arms approach to the world.

And he's begun a thorough revamping of the Vatican bureaucracy that promises a decentralized, more collegial Catholicism.

Instead of relying on the Vatican bureaucracy, Francis has created a cabinet of eight cardinals from around the world, including Sean O'Malley, the archbishop of Boston, to advise him. The supersecret Vatican bank has even released its first-ever annual report and the pope has appointed a committee to investigate its activities.

Wherever they find themselves on the liberal/conservative arc, Catholics can agree that the Argentine pontiff - the first Latin American and first Jesuit to be elected pope - is shaking things up.

"It's not too early to call him a reformer," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter and former editor of the Jesuit journal America (where he ran afoul of the Vatican for including commentary that ran counter to church positions). "By the end of his first week, we could call him a reformer. He's changing the culture of the church."

"He's definitely a reformer . . . ," said Philip F. Lawler, a conservative Catholic activist who edits Catholic World News. "He's going to be prodding diocesan bishops to take more of a leadership role. There are some [bishops] who are very happy to pass the buck to Rome. He's a decentralizer."

In an interview last week in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, Francis criticized the church's "Vatican-centric" culture and said that "heads of the church have often been narcissists, flattered and thrilled by their courtiers. The court is the leprosy of the papacy."

The Rev. Gerald P. Fogarty, a Jesuit priest and historian of the papacy who teaches at the University of Virginia, said that Francis combines the style of two of the church's great reformers - his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, and Pope St. Gregory VII, who reigned from 1073 to 1085.

St. Francis embodied a personal approach to reform, while St. Gregory aimed at reforming institutions, Fogarty explained, citing medieval historian Gerhart Ladner.

"The most important thing so far, I think, is the effort to change the Curia [the Vatican bureaucracy] into a servant instead of career goal," Fogarty said in an e-mail from Rome, where he is attending meetings. "His realization of the necessity of consultation is also important; we will have to wait to see if he really moves toward collegiality."

The pope has created "an entirely new universe" in the Vatican, said Rocco Palmo, author of the Philadelphia-based Catholic insider blog "Whispers in the Loggia." "He is his own boss. He's not going to be handled. . . . Now there's an added degree of what now? You never know. You never know."

But while what the pope is doing may have long-lasting impact, what he's saying is making headlines.

"If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge?"

"We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. . . . It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time."

"Every unborn child, though unjustly condemned to be aborted, has the face of the Lord. . . . They must not be thrown away!"

"The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone. 'Father, the atheists?' Even the atheists. Everyone!"

"When I meet a clericalist, I suddenly become anticlerical. Clericalism should not have anything to do with Christianity."

All of this has, for the most part, played well, in the church and beyond.

"He's incredible," said Reese. "I'm just delighted with all the things he's been saying."

"He's changing the Catholic imagination, the consciousness of the Catholic Church," said Leonard F. Swidler, professor of Catholic thought and interreligious dialogue at Temple University.

Some conservative Catholics may be as dismayed as Reese is delighted.

"A lot of my friends are upset . . . ," says Lawler. While Lawler says he doesn't share their distress, he does understand it: "Their perception is that the pope has sort of cut the ground out from under them."

But Francis isn't about to change Catholic doctrine. "Anyone hoping for - or worried about - a break by Pope Francis from Catholic teaching on matters of substance is going to be mistaken," Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput said in a lecture Tuesday at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary. "At the same time, the tone of this pontificate will certainly be distinct from anything in the past century."


mschaffer@phillynews.com

215-854-2537

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